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Rating New York’s ‘Upper Crusts’
*This article was updated on April 4 due to a correction.
Editor’s note: Yes, we have all read the star-rated reviews of New York’s best pizzerias: Of course, there is Motorino, Pulino’s, and other venerable pie havens peppered throughout the city. But Highbrow Magazine writer Eugene Durante, a born-and-bred New Yorker, wanted to offer his take of the best slices in and around his hometown. (Apologies to Motorino, Pulino’s and others for not making the list, be we figured they have received enough accolades already.)
Pizza and New York City go together like pancakes and syrup; each great enough to exist solely, but taken together, the pairing intensifies. Everyone’s heard why we make the best pizza. However, many are uncertain if the secret lies in the local water, the homemade mozzarella cheese, a well-worn brick oven, or the well-trained hands of the talented and underappreciated Mexican staff in most pizza kitchens. One fact is certain, both our location and our fast food staple rests mightily at the top of the food chain. New Yorkers would have it no other way. Call it confidence or arrogance; we don’t care. Just make that slice to go.
Sometimes the native ego gets carried away, though. New Yorkers can be very protective of their cultural icons. (Just ask any Brooklyn Dodger fan. The feeling of betrayal still runs deep.) Almost cult-like in its devotion, our mystical allegiance to the city’s best pizzerias almost seems counterintuitive. Since when do New Yorker’s blindly follow the opinions of others -- especially those who aren’t even from the City? Well, the buck stops here. The following is a critical debunking of Gotham’s top-tier pizzerias, warts and all… the way things should be done in New York.
Welcome to Brooklyn
While everyone has a preference, most city-dwellers unanimously agree that the best pizza is found in Brooklyn. Case closed. Of course one can travel to Connecticut or even Soprano-land for a great clam pie or a slice larger than the human head, but for this highly scientific study, let’s keep it to a ‘generally accepted’ list of perennial favorites. The upper crust if you will, even if we have to look beyond Brooklyn in the name of honest-to-goodness reporting.
Starting by the Brooklyn Bridge is the famous Grimaldi’s Pizza. The most egregious of the pizza snobs, Grimaldi’s has been catering to out-of-towners and double-decker bus tourists for years. To its credit, Grimaldi's still makes a decent product, but don’t go there on a rainy day. Patrons are regularly forced to wait curbside for an open table in the overcrowded dining area. The highlight of the experience was always the great old school jukebox of Italian favorites. Invest a buck; it will greatly drown out the neighbor’s conversation only a half an arm length away.
“We’ve been standing here for 45 minutes, and we are the next up to bat,” said Rob and Katherine Richards from Washington D.C., as they asked for subway directions back to their hotel. “It took us longer to find the pizzeria from the Metro than we did waiting on the line out here,” said the visiting couple on a recent visit.
“Keep it in the family and visit the original Patsy’s uptown,” said Tommy Degati, a Brooklyn local. “The dining room is small but they handle the crowd better. The overall experience is better uptown,” according to Degati, pointing at the scaffolding around the bridge directly overhead. “I just don’t feel like sitting in traffic.”
On Route to East Harlem
On the way to East Harlem one should consider stopping off at one of John’s Pizzerias. The Bleeker Street location downtown is an even mix of tourists, bridge-and-tunnel commuters, and neighborhood locals. Often criticized for overcooking the crust (charred, but not burned) and overfilling the dining area, many prefer this location as a stop on a village pub crawl. The college crowd tends to lean on college servers who may not be well versed for a fast-paced environment. To avoid the lines, one can venture to the Theater District and stop in at John’s Midtown. A tastefully converted Broadway theater, John’s Midtown boasts itself as the “world’s largest pizzeria.” While the service seems rushed, the pizza is better than most, though impossible to get one single slice. With many tables to choose from in the multi-tier, domed eatery, the shorter wait may be an acceptable tradeoff.
One can’t discuss Manhattan pizza without paying homage to America’s first pizzeria, Lombardi’s of Spring Street. Opened in 1905, Lombardi’s was the first to sell whole pies (and it still does not sell pizza by the slice) in a sit-down setting when other vendors were still using pushcarts on the downtown streets. The pizza is well worth the wait, but not the parking ticket, so be sure to hop on the subway for an experience at the original.
“If you havta leave Brooklyn, there’s no use going beyond Little Italy,” explains Joe Tarzia of Sheepshead Bay on a recent visit. “Those other guys ain’t worth the aggravation.”
While Lombardi’s is America’s first, a couple of location changes and a 10-year closing of the business precludes it from being the oldest in continuous operation. Some local elders swear that something changed during the hiatus, but many haven’t been around long enough to notice. For a visit to America’s oldest pizzeria in continuous operation, take a train ride to the Brooklyn seaside.
As if anyone needs a reason to visit Coney Island, no trip would be complete without a visit to Totonno’s pizzeria. Probably suffering the worst reputation of all the highbrow pizzerias, Totonno’s is America’s oldest pizzeria continually in operation. For many years, the family snubbed patrons and turned away service whenever they ran out of homemade mozzarella or dough. Those days are long gone, but the lines on a summer beach day are not. The service is not what it can be, but you will definitely have an authentic New York experience from an authentic Brooklyn family. Louise, the matriarch, can still be heard colorfully arguing with her relatives as they fumble through the crowds waiting for a table.
“I drive from Long Island all the way to Coney Island for Totonno’s pizza,” says Mike Trotta.
Despite closing longer than necessary for a recent kitchen fire, one would have thought to see a newly renovated enterprise, but not so. While Totonno’s may not have the business acumen of other citywide favorites, the pizza is the well worth the ride out to Coney.
Di Fara’s Pizzeria in Midwood is a perennial food critic and fan favorite. Of all the top-tier pizza joints, Di Fara’s is one of only two selling pizza by the slice. Fresh and made to order, every customer is guaranteed top-notch ingredients, made with care, by an artisan family. What nobody promises here is speedy service or any degree of cleanliness. Anyone familiar with the Di Fara’s experience will regularly notice a wickedly understaffed storefront as the proprietor slowly makes his product. A one- to two-hour wait for a $5 slice is the norm.
“We kill time shopping at the supermarket across the street,” said one customer eating a slice from a recently opened pizzeria only a few doors away. “We’re having a pizza snack while we wait for Di Fara to return from his siesta.”
The corner business closes weekdays between 4 -6:30 p.m. as the crowds begin to gather, often without prior notice to customers. A recent visit to the location saw the grease-stained roll-down gate, barely lifted to clear the front door, and a large handwritten paper sign on the front door saying “pull door hard.” Putting some shoulder behind the pull, the deadbolt broke through the door. “WE’RE CLOSED!” screamed someone from within the smoke-encrusted-and-rarely-cleaned front window. “READ THE SIGN.”
The New York City Department of Health has posted a few signs of their own here. In 2011 alone, the DOH closed the pizzeria numerous times for “serious and persistent violations.” Viewing the DOH reports online, one infraction involved the “duties of an officer of the Department interfered with or obstructed.”
While the joint is not clean by any means, the pizza is still worth a try -- though no pizza is worth a two-hour wait. Maybe the family will someday splurge for more hired help, spruce the place up, and focus on a long-term plan before the Di Fara name is violated out of existence.
Skipping over to Gravesend, Brooklyn, we find L & B Spumoni Gardens Pizzeria. This multi-storefront experience now combines a pizzeria, a separate sit-down restaurant, and a dessert shop all on one huge property. They also provide a large and perpetually packed parking lot. Known for their sauce-heavy Sicilian (square) slices, and a queue backed up to the property line, one has to wonder how much lost revenue walks off to other eateries in the Italian-American stronghold.
Spumoni Gardens has more than 20 pizza ovens on premises, and the best trained staff to handle the volume of any eatery citywide, but to their dismay they only utilize a handful of ovens. Even at peak dinner hours, a long line of displeased and vocal Brooklynites can be seen standing impatiently. Fortunately, a large outdoor seating area makes up for their business deficiencies. Any given day is like stepping into a people-watching paradise. Between the reality show locals, and the celebrities visiting the eatery, time passes quickly.
Hello Staten Island
Visiting the city’s most notable pizzerias wouldn’t be complete without a trip to Denino’s Pizza Tavern in Port Richmond Staten Island. With a small but prominent bar in front, a stiff drink is well needed upon finding the location. A ferry ride and two buses away from Manhattan, the pizza is worth the travel. There are no slices here, but you will find the best-made pizza of the bunch -- even if their toppings don't rate as well. Traditionally thicker than most of the brick oven samplings, Denino’s provides a heavy, filling pie in the crowded dining area. Erratic expansions over the decades have created a bizarre mix of styles and approaches, but don’t let that interfere with a great product. To see the real peculiarity of the building, have dessert at the original Ralph’s Italian ices across the street and take in the view from afar.
Eugene Durante is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.
Photo credits: Eugene Durante, bensonhurstbean.com, mobilemunchies.blogspot.com